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3 August, 2018 00:00 00 AM


Giving The Gift of Sight

By Maria Mohsin
Giving The Gift of Sight

The top floor of Bangladesh Eye Hospital in Dhaka was much livelier than on a regular day, with children playing around the corridor early in the morning. Though, most of the children there were fully or partially blind, their childhood exuberance couldn’t be taken away.

Five-year-old Shumon is the only child of Monir Islam. While explaining his son’s condition to this correspondent, the middle-aged farmer burst into tears: “He is my only son and if he can’t see properly, then I cannot see any future for our family. He had some problems in his eye at birth, and when we took him to the local doctor, he said my son has an allergy in the eye. For almost two-three years, the doctor gave him medicine for allergy and we have to pay him Tk 500 as fee every time we see him to get more medicine. It’s a lot of money for us. We had to save the whole month for that Tk 500 to get the medicine, and now we know the medicine was of no use. We kept on giving him the medicine until he became completely blind in both eyes. Now, if he gets well, it will be a blessing for our family. And I can’t explain how grateful I will be.”

There were eight children, aged between 7 months to 12 years, waiting to be treated that rainy Thursday at the Dhanmondi branch of the private hospital in the capital. They had all come from very remote villages of northern Kurigram and Lalmonirhat districts for cataract surgery. The surgery would restore the children’s eyesight, and give their families new hope. And they were going to get the operation done for free, thanks to a generous initiative.  

The initiative was introduced in 2000 by Dr Kazi Shabbir Anwar, a paediatric ophthalmologist at the hospital, and the consultant has been doing free cataract surgery since. Right after returning to Bangladesh after completing a fellowship on ophthalmology from University of British Columbia, Canada, he joined a study initiated by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and started working on the project to identify curable blindness in remote areas of the county, and treating patients for free.

“During the study by London School of Hygiene (and Tropical Medicine) in 2000, we found that there were about 40,000 blind children in Bangladesh and most of them became blind due to vitamin (A) deficiency and poor diet. I noticed cataract cases were more common in poorer village children, and we figured it must be related to their diet or environment. The number of cataract cases among village children is increasing day by day, but we don’t have any recent data on it as there are very few people working in the field,” said Dr Anwar, aged 54.

“Low gestational age (premature), low birth weight, administration of oxygen, apneic spells, sepsis and blood transfusions are some of the other reasons that can lead to cataract among such children. Otherwise, cataract can happen to anyone and there is no exact reason for it,” he added.

Within a couple of years, when LSHTM, a research centre for public and global health in the UK, finished their study in Bangladesh and stopped the free operations, Dr Anwar continued the work on his own. Over the past 18 years, he has done almost 5,000 free cataract surgeries on underprivileged children from remote areas of the county. The hospital where he works now provides the operating room, surgical equipment and day care rooms free of charge.

“I used to travel to different districts with various organisations to raise awareness through presentations, examination of patients, and so on. But soon, it became difficult for me to continue the programme on my own, both financially and technically. Though financially I still did not depend on anyone else, I needed more technical support. So, I am very much thankful to Bangladesh Eye Hospital for coming forward in 2005 and offering me assistance to operate on these poor children and providing them with a place to stay during their surgery,” Dr Anwar said.  

“Doing surgery on children, especially on those who have cataract from birth, is very difficult. That is why a well-equipped hospital is most necessary. The operation is very different from that on adults, and we give a permanent (replacement) lens to the children so they will get the best vision,” the doctor explained. Cataract is a condition where the eye’s natural lens becomes cloudy, and it is the most common cause of impaired vision, according to Prevent Blindness America.  

Not only Shumon Islam, other children present at the hospital that day (July 19), including Raju Ahmed, 11, Shujon, 8, Salaeh Ahmed, 9, and Shathi, 12, had been prescribed medication for allergy for a long time. Even though they are all from different villages, their parents claimed that local doctors treated them that way saying they had allergy problems. Most of the parents didn’t even realise their child had a cataract problem, or that he or she had some other congenital eye disorder. They all had different stories to tell.  

Salima Khatun said her one-year-old son, Selim, lost his vision after getting conjunctivitis, a common eye disease. But the doctor diagnosed that Selim had cataracts from birth. Eight-year-old Shujon’s father, Ismail, who only gave one name, said his son became blind after he fell from a tree about five years ago and before that, he was fine. And Raju’s father, Rabiul Islam, said his son developed his eye problem after one of his friends threw a stone at him, hitting him in the eyes.

Shathi, 12, was the only girl among the patients that morning. She was accompanied by her paternal uncle, Kubas Ali. “Shathi’s father was not interested in coming this far for the surgery. He was not ready for it, that’s why I took the responsibility and brought my niece here, because the girl needs normal vision for a good future,” said Ali.    

Commenting on the children’s poignant stories, Dr Anwar, said: “If you check, all the families are very poor. They are mostly (tenant) farmers who work for landowners and they don’t even earn enough to bring home food every day. So for them, seeing a doctor and giving Tk 500 as fee per visit means sacrificing a lot.”

“Moreover, parents are more willing to get treatment for their male child, but if a female child has cataracts, the family shows little interest. Normally, we don’t perform cataract surgery on both eyes at the same time, but for some girls, we have to do it on the same day as their parents are not willing to waste another working day to bring them to the hospital. I also offer free surgery for ‘squint eye’ (strabismus) to young women who are facing problems in getting married because of the condition,” he added.  

“The parents don’t have enough knowledge to understand what their children are suffering from. So, raising awareness is very important for us, but we need a strong group of people to do that, which I don’t have now,” Dr Anwar continued. “Thus, I formed an organisation, named ‘Light House Trust’, which now helps me to contact local hospitals and different charitable organisations in different districts to find children with cataracts. The organisation also helps with collecting funds and donations.”

“We treat 10 children every month. The selected children, along with one of their parents or a guardian, are brought to Bangladesh Eye Hospital for the surgery. We send a microbus for them and after the operation, we drop them back home. All the expenditure, such as transport, food, accommodation, medicines and surgery costs are covered by the trust and me,” Dr Anwar added. The free operations are usually carried out on Thursdays.  

“I want to build an army of volunteers who will be willing to work selflessly for changing the lives of these children. It doesn’t take much. I have some colleagues and hospital staff who have been aiding me for almost 13 years now. But I fear that there will be a time when I have to retire. Then, what will happen to these children? We need to build the next generation of volunteers, and I am now encouraging young doctors to continue what I started,” the doctor told The Weekend Independent. n

Photos: Courtesy


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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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